Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Reforming the Village War

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Reforming the Village War

Article excerpt

The Afghanistan Conflict

In the strategic debate over Afghanistan, two opposing schools of thought have emerged. The first asserts that a durable victory requires a functioning, legitimate, and representative nation-state; the second contends that U.S. national security concerns can be satisfied without committing to a wholesale restructuring of the country. The predominate school advocates surging ground troops and deeper national commitment; its counterpart seeks solution through long-distance punitive strikes using cruise missiles, unmanned predator drones, or raids by special operations forces.

Limiting the strategic response to whether America is either spending billions of dollars and suffering thousands of dead to restructure whole countries or is a distant sword bearer antiseptically raining down death and destruction is, however, a false choice. Washington's challenge is to field a decisive and cost-effective global strategy implemented by successful tactics to bring a durable victory.

To be sure, Afghanistan is a seemingly intractable problem. Throughout history, dozens of foreign armies have marched into the country-from the ancient Greeks and Persians, to the Mongol hordes, to British, Russian, and Soviet occupiers. None of them remained, and the legacy of their battles and campaigns has not been empire but an indigenous Pashtun tribal structure and culture, refined and honed over millennia for fierce resistance against invaders.

The Pashtuns are permanent in the region. The Americans are not. The Afghans will wait out this latest incursion as they did those by every foreign invader since Alexander the Great. Unless Washington adopts a new and imaginative strategy that will separate the Taliban from the Pashtun tribes, the U.S. footprint in Afghanistan is bound to disappear with no lasting legacy.


In his address to the nation on October 7, 2001, announcing the beginning of combat operations in Afghanistan- or Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) as it would come to be known- President George W. Bush defined the nascent campaign as

carefully targeted actions . . . designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime . . . Every nation has a choice to make ... In this conflict, there is no neutral ground. If any government sponsors the outlaws and killers of innocents, they have become outlaws and murderers themselves. And they will take that lonely path at their own peril.1

This goal was reaffirmed in "The National Security Strategy of the United States," the Bush administration's strategy document, published in September 2002, which sought to "disrupt and destroy terrorist organizations by ... denying further sponsorship, support, and sanctuary to terrorists by convincing or compelling states to accept their sovereign responsibilities."2

Nine years later, Operation Enduring Freedom has progressed through three distinct strategic phases:

Phase one. Beginning as a counterinsurgency campaign, OEF quickly developed into an offensive war of maneuver where massed Northern Alliance militias advanced to engage the Taliban in open battle. OEF phase one was waged unconventionally - utilizing the Taliban's local rivals and supported by the CIA, Army Green Berets, and U.S. air power. It toppled the Taliban regime in a rapid and cost-effective manner that was over to all intents and purposes by December 20, 2001, when the U.N. Security Council established the British-led International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) "to assist the Afghan Interim Authority in the maintenance of security in Kabul and its surrounding areas."3

Phase two. Characterized by a logistical buildup and strategic defense waged through a conventional war of attrition, the second phase began with Operation Anaconda in March 2002 when more than 1 ,000 U.S. soldiers conducted fierce firelights in the Tora Bora region, inflicting hundreds of casualties on the Taliban, their Pashtun tribal backers, and their al-Qaeda allies. …

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